Behavior theory maintains that human actions are developed through learning experiences. Rather than focus on unconscious personality traits or cognitive development patterns produced early in childhood, behavior theorists are concerned with actual behaviors in people’s daily lives. The major premise of behavior theory is that people alter their behavior according to the reactions it receives from others. Behavior is supported by rewards and extinguished by negative reactions or punishments. Behaviorist theory is quite complex with many different sub-areas.
The behaviorist views crimes, especially violent acts, as learned responses to life situations that do not necessarily represent abnormality or moral immaturity. Biological trait theory has several core principles. First, it assumes that genetic makeup contributes significantly to human behavior. It contends that not all humans are born with equal potential to learn and achieve; this is referred to as equipotentiality. Sociologically oriented criminologists suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that all people are born equal; they also assert that thereafter behavior is controlled by social forces.
Biosocial theorists, on the other hand, argue that no two people are alike and that the combination of human genetic traits and the environment produces individual behavior patterns (Nachshon, 1990). Early biological theorists believed that criminality ran in families. Although research on deviant families is not taken seriously today, modern biosocial theorist are still interested in the role of genetics. If some human behaviors are influenced by heredity, wouldn’t that be the case for antisocial tendencies as well?
Animals can be bred for aggressive traits: pit bulldogs, fighting bulls and fighting cocks have been selectively mated to produce superior predators. No similar data exists with regard to people, but a growing body of research is focusing on the genetic factors associated with human behavior. Data also suggest that human traits associated with criminality have a genetic basis. Personality conditions linked to aggression such as psychopathy, impulsivity, and neuroticism and to psychopathology such as, schizophrenia may be heritable (Carey & DiLalla, 1994). Social learning is the branch of behavior theory most relevant to criminology.
Social learning theorists, most notably Albert Bandura, argue that people are not actually born with the ability to act violently. But that they learn to be aggressive through their life experiences. These experiences include personally observing others acting aggressively to achieve some goal or watching people being rewarded for violent acts on television or in movies. People learn to act aggressively when, as children, they model their behavior after the violent acts of adults. Later in life, these violent behavior patterns persist in social relationships.
For example, the boy who sees his father repeatedly strike his mother with impunity is likely to become a battering parent and husband (Bandura, 1973). Although social learning theorists agree that mental or physical traits may predispose a person toward violence, they believe that a person’s violent tendencies are activated by factors in the environment. The specific form of aggressive behavior, the frequency with which it is express, the situations in which it is displayed, and the specific targets selected for attack are largely determined by social learning.
However, people are self-aware and engage in purposeful learning. Their interpretations of behavior outcomes and situations influence the way they learn from experiences. One adolescent who spends a weekend in jail for drunk driving may find it the most awful experience of her life, one that teaches her never to drink and drive again. Another person, however, may find it an exciting experience about which they can brag to their friends (Kohlberg, 1969). Social learning theorists view violence as something learned through a process called behavior modeling.
In modern society, aggressive acts are usually modeled after three principal sources. The most prominent is family members. Bandura reports that studies of family life show that aggressive children have parents who use similar tactics when dealing with others. The second influence is provided by environmental experiences. People who reside in areas in which violence occurs daily are more likely to act violently than those who dwell in low-crime areas whose norms stress conventional behavior. A third source of behavior modeling is provided by the mass media.
Films and television shows commonly depicted violence graphically. Violence is often portrayed as acceptable, especially for heroes who never have to face legal consequences for their actions (Bandura, 1977). One area of psychology that has received increasing recognition in recent years has been cognitive theory. Psychologists with a cognitive perspective focus on mental processes and how people perceive mentally represent the world around them and solve problems. The pioneers of this school were Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), Edward Titchener (1867-1927), and William James (1842-1920).
Today there are several sub-disciplines within the cognitive area. The moral development branch is concerned with how people morally represent and reason about the world. Humanistic psychology stresses self-awareness and getting in touch with feelings. Information-processing theory focuses on how people process, store, encode, retrieve and manipulate information to make decisions and solve problems (Denno, 1985). For most of the twentieth century, biological and psychological views of criminality have influenced crime control and prevention policy.
The result has been front-end or primary prevention programs that seek to treat personal problems before they manifest themselves as crime. To this end, there are thousands of family therapy organizations, substance abuse clinics, mental health associations, and so on operating around the United States. Teachers, employers, courts, welfare agencies and others make referrals to these facilities. These services are based on the premise that if a person’s problems can be treated before they become overwhelming; some future crimes will be prevented.
Secondary prevention programs provide treatment such as psychological counseling to youths and adults after they have violated the law. Attendance in such programs may be requirement of a probation order, part of a diversionary sentence or aftercare at the end of a prison sentence (Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). Biologically oriented therapy is also being used in the criminal justice system. Programs have altered diets, changed lighting, compensated for learning disabilities, treated allergies, and so on.
What is more controversial has been the use of mood-altering chemicals, such as lithium, pemoline and benzodiazepines, to control behavior. Another practice that has elicited concern is the use of psychosurgery to control antisocial behavior: surgical procedures have been used to alter the brain structure of convicted sex offenders in an effort to eliminate or control their sex drives. Although such biological treatment is relatively new, it has become common since the 1920’s to offer psychological treatment to offenders before during, and after a criminal conviction.
For example, beginning in the 1970’s pretrial programs has sought to divert offenders into non-punitive rehabilitative programs designed to treat rather than punish them (Mednick, Moffitt & Stack, 1987). Reference: Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis, Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentice-Hall. Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory, Englewood Cliffs, N. J. : Prentice-Hall. Carey, G. & DiLalla, D. (1994). “Personality and Psychopathology: Genetic Perspectives”, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 32-43. Denno, D. (1985).
“Sociological and Human Developmental Explanations of Crime: Conflict or Consensus”, Criminology, 23, 711-741. Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stages in the Development of Moral Thought and Action, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Mednick, S. , Moffitt, T. & Stack, S. (1987). The Causes of Crime: New Biological Approaches, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nachshon, I. (1990). “Neurological Bases of Crime, Psycholopathy and Aggression”, In Crime in Biological, Social and Moral Contexts, Eds. Lee Ellis and Harry Hoffman, New York: Praeger. Wilson, J. Q. & Herrnstein, R. (1985). Crime and Human Nature, New York: Simon and Schuster.